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Reflection vs. Urgency

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

I opened Outlook this morning, as I do every morning, to check my email. As I scroll through my inbox past publisher spam, updates from the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed, and calendar invitations I see emails with words like ASAP, URGENT, IMPORTANT, FEEDBACK NEEDED, DEADLINE, etc. There is a strong sense of urgency in each of these VERY IMPORTANT emails that upon close reading, as really just questions. They are questions that people would like answers to, and, in some cases, might even need, but they are often phrased as demands that are URGENT URGENT URGENT. So I slowly triage my email, determining what actually needs my immediate attention, sorting messages into folders, and getting ready to reply with calm, polite, measured responses. What I really want to do is clear all messages from my inbox and blast myself into the sun but that is neither safe nor productive. The sun seems like a poor choice of a vacation spot.

I am struck by how much of our jobs as librarians is shaped by the urgency of a few–the class that needs to happen on Friday, the reference question that needs to be answered ASAP, the professor who needs their materials yesterday–rather than the needs of our greater community. As a profession we pride ourselves on embracing reflective practice, that set of questioning, thinking, and shaping future action that we know will help us improve our teaching and research. We encourage students to take their time and think through their work because we know that thoughtful research is better research, but we often practice the complete opposite. There are moments, despite our best efforts at intentionality and reflection, where we have to simply react react react. And where does that leave us? It leaves me feeling exhausted, emotionally and mentally drained, and prone to making mistakes and bad judgement calls.

I try to offer others the benefit of the doubt, and remind myself of the concept coined by Harriet Schwartz, “asymmetrical primacy,” which is the difference in weight/importance that people place on the same interaction. Schwartz writes about visiting her doctor as an important moment where she would like the doctor’s full attention; but for the doctor, Schwartz is one of many patients they see throughout the day. The person messaging me with a strong sense of urgency may indeed see that email to me as extremely important, while to me, that message is just one of dozens that claim equal importance. They turn into background noise. The chorus of URGENT URGENT URGENT constantly playing in my head all day long. When things get that noisy it’s almost impossible to sit and just think, much less reflect.

I do, however, have sympathy for the ASAP email crowd. This is a big university and a large library and they have likely learned that the only emails and phone calls that garner a response are those that are urgent, or threatening, or desperate. I get it. I really do. But it doesn’t make those emails any less exhausting. So how do I/we balance the urgency of demands against the need to reflect and spend time thinking about our work? I am fortunate enough to work in place that values time spent thinking and planning, so I know that I have administrative support to set aside so-called urgencies for a time. I try to encourage my team to do the same. Yes, it will upset some people, and lead to more follow up phone calls than we care to answer, but if we don’t take time to think, reflect, and plan, our work suffers. Urgency is the enemy of good work in librarianship and I wish we would push back against the urge to react and instead spend time reflecting, planning, and creating change.

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Reading Roma Harris on International Women’s Day


I’ve been consumed by and consuming one book this past week, and it seems fitting to write about it on International Women’s Day. Roma Harris’ Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession is, at its core, a defense of women. Harris deconstructs the “problems” within librarianship and argues that they are fundamentally rooted in the field’s feminization within a sexist society that undervalues and dismisses women and women’s work. This book was published in 1992, but it is still. so. damn. relevant. Every other page is flagged, copious notes have been taken, and I may have even underlined one or two things (in pencil, lightly).

I encourage you to read it, to get a sense of the supremely important role gender (and gender performance) has played in the construction of our profession over the past hundred and fifty years. But I want to focus on one chapter in particular: The aptly named “Self-doubt and Self-blame.” Harris writes:

In an ambitious content analysis of the library literature, Bennett observed what he referred to as a “mea culpa” convention in the field, that is, the “criticism of librarians, libraries, and librarianship by librarians themselves” …librarians often blame each other for what are, in fact, externally imposed barriers to progress…Some turn their anger inward, pointing accusing fingers at one another for being too feminine, too masculine, or not enough of either. Others see that the barriers to progress are externally imposed and choose to fight back or leave these professions entirely.

As I read this chapter, all I could think was, Yes. Yes to all of this. I am often a self-doubter and a self-blamer, and, when things get really dark, a self-denigrator. I question my parenting choices, my career decisions, and my day-to-day existence as a woman. I wonder if I couldn’t be living better, which, as I write it, feels a bit preposterous. You live the life you live. But in this world, even as a woman who inhabits a fair amount of privilege, it’s still easier to see myself as being to blame when things go wrong or when things get difficult. Yes, personal responsibility is important, but it’s equally important, if not more so, for the individual to be able to critique the larger system of which they are a part. But I never can seem to get beyond blaming myself.

I often take all of this self-doubt and blame and transfer it from my personal life to my own work. Just yesterday I felt as though I wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t being effective enough, wasn’t making enough of my difference in my library and at my college. I know, intellectually, that I am being hard on myself and doing what my mother and countless other women often do–blaming ourselves because we’re easiest to blame. But emotionally, my ego takes over and I become the person to blame for all of the things that could be done better.

I think drawing that comparison to how we treat our own profession is spot on. I find myself doing it, too, at times. I think there is nothing wrong with being critical of our profession. It’s needed to call out issues of inequity and spark creativity. But I do think there is a problem with disparaging our work in our lowest moments as being unimportant, out-of-touch, or irrelevant. Our constant preoccupation with what’s next in libraries makes it easy for us to dismiss and not build on the important work we do right now. Instead of, as Harris states, “taking the battle outside,” we fight it amongst ourselves.

We librarians need to be more like this…
We librarians don’t have anything new to contribute…
We librarians need to stop doing this…
We librarians should be more like these people in these fields…

Take for example, my reaction at a recent conference session. Wonderful librarians were presenting on faculty development and faculty-librarian collaboration and talked about using the question “How can we [librarians] help you [faculty]?” I immediately did an inward eyeroll and thought: That’s the problem with us librarians. We keep setting ourselves up to be doormats. The problem isn’t necessarily with the critique, because unequal power relationships between teaching faculty and librarians (whatever our status) are a real thing, but with the direction of the anger. Why wasn’t my reaction: *eyeroll* That’s the problem with neoliberal educational structures. They’re all about efficiency and hierarchy,  and when they combine with sexism, you get this uneven power relationship between librarians and faculty that force those kinds of questions/statements. 

It’s easier to blame ourselves, to encourage the librarian to be more professional, more knowledgeable, more accommodating, more MORE. It’s hard to demand change from deeply entrenched power structures. The fact that Harris’ writing still echoes my day-to-day work life 25 years after it was written is proof enough that our efforts at transforming “librarianship” into something more/better/bigger/faster/smarter are not going to save us. We don’t need the saving. The structures we exist in are what need to change.